Netanyahu and Obama, Mitchell and Abbas (AP)"I think that it’s fair that the United States holds the Israelis and the Palestinians to an ambitious standard. Because there really is, in fact, one primary goal, which is to once and for all end the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis permanently. It will take extraordinary courage on the prime minister’s behalf, as well as President Abbas’ behalf, to do so."
How do you assess the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu last week? Were there any tangible results?
The meeting between the president and the prime minister was successful both in a substantive way and a political way. Clearly, the two men had a remarkably positive exchange in private for roughly an hour and a half. I take great confidence from the fact that the president left that meeting with a degree of confidence that Prime Minister Netanyahu was prepared to move in a number of meaningful areas that would bolster the opportunity to engage in direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And this is clearly a success for the president, for Senator Mitchell and for the entire American team.
But most importantly, it presents an opportune possibility in the next six or seven months to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians together to talk about end-of-conflict decisions that need to be made. And it’s clear that the prime minister talked with the president about significant steps that he is prepared to take on the ground in the West Bank in order to give President Abbas the needed confidence to move to direct talks, as well as the ability of the Arab League to support those talks.
What is also clear is that the security relationship between the United States and Israel, the military-to-military relationship, the intelligence-to-intelligence relationship, has never been stronger. And just recently, one of the assistant secretaries of state—Secretary Shapiro—engaged in a lengthy description at the Brookings Institution on the degree of cooperation between the United States and Israel. And it is undeniable that the degree of cooperation, the degree of compatibility and the degree of commitment between the United States and Israel in terms of Israel’s security is as strong as can possibly be.
So, I think on both substantive and political grounds, the president and the prime minister had an exceedingly successful meeting.
The media portrayed the meeting as an attempt to repair relations between the president and the prime minister after what they argued was a problematic relationship over the past year. What is your sense of the relationship and whether it’s changed and what, in that context, the last week’s meeting meant?
I think that the distance between the two men has been exaggerated. So, the so-called ‘repair’ is not as great as people may think. However, particularly in Washington, as well as Jerusalem, perception oftentimes either affects or becomes reality. To the degree that the president and prime minister made a concerted effort to publicly express support for one another and a degree of warmth towards each other and highlight the intimacy in terms of the relationship between the United States and Israel under the Obama and the Netanyahu administrations, this was a very important step. And more importantly, it’s a needed message to all parties concerned both with the American-Israeli relationship, but possibly even more important, for our Arab allies in the region, and for Iran and Turkey and Syria. And I don’t put Turkey in the same category as Iran and Syria by any means, but I just think that it’s important that people understand the degree of commitment between the United States and Israel.
And what do you think might be the steps that the Israeli government could take to start to move talks towards direct talks?
The most meaningful steps that Prime Minister Netanyahu could take would be to provide assurances to the president, and then ultimately to President Abbas that he is both willing and prepared to engage in a serious fashion in an end-of-conflict discussion, And that he is willing to make the very serious calculations and decisions that are required on issues such as borders and refugees, Jerusalem, security and the like. Simultaneously, or in addition to end-of-conflict issues, there are steps Israelis can take on the West Bank with respect to quality of life issues that would go a great distance to repair relations between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, and to bolster the work that Prime Minister Fayyad is doing. The Israelis certainly can continue, as security allows, to remove road blocks—to commit to respecting the sovereignty of Prime Minister Fayyad’s forces, in effect—so that the Israelis don’t inadvertently send the wrong messages to the Palestinian people about the degree of confidence that both the Israelis and the Americans have in the security forces that have been trained by the Jordanians, by General Dayton, and most importantly, by Palestinians themselves, and are taking charge of their own security.
These are the kind of steps, along with economic measures, which are vitally important, and have in fact, paid significant dividends already for the Palestinian people in the West Bank. These are the kinds of steps that both substantively and politically are very important. This will be happening simultaneously with the prime minister’s implementation of the new policies in Gaza, which should answer the cries of those, some rationally so and some irrationally so, who have been concerned about the humanitarian conditions in Gaza. And when I say rationally or irrationally, I do not minimize the humanitarian concerns in Gaza. But, they do need to be put in context, and I think the new rules that Prime Minister Netanyahu has proposed and is starting to implement will minimize the degree of concern that people in governments should have regarding Gaza over the coming months.
You hosted a dinner with President Abbas and top Jewish American leaders recently. What was your sense of Abbas’ priorities and the likelihood of progress based on that dinner? You spoke very clearly about what the Israelis should be doing, what should the Palestinians be doing?
The Palestinians have an obligation to continue to build their institutions. They must continue to build their capacity for security. There is great room for improvement in terms of law and order and ferreting out sources of corruption. After all, the Fatah party and the West Bank leadership were unable to conduct local elections as planned. There is enormous work that needs to be done, particularly in the realm of incitement. The Israelis, rightfully so, wonder whether this Palestinian leadership is committed to peace. The Palestinians have a responsibility to prepare their people for a process of negotiations. In that context, the Palestinian leadership, I believe, serves their own interest by minimizing, if not eliminating altogether, the degree of incitement within the Palestinian area relative to Israel. To President Abbas’ credit, when he was in Washington, he talked about the need to set up a tri-lateral commission between the United States, Israel and the Palestinians for the purpose of monitoring and stopping incitement. So, President Abbas is not oblivious to this need.
Most importantly, President Abbas, in an unequivocal fashion when he was in Washington, completely rejected violence as a means in which to achieve Palestinian statehood. He committed himself to diplomacy and to negotiations, and he indicated that he needed to see progress in the proximity talks as a standard for how to move to direct negotiations. He needed to see that there was a likelihood of seriousness. And those are the things that President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Senator Mitchell now are rightfully working on. I believe they will be successful in persuading the Palestinians and the Arab League that what the president heard from Prime Minister Netanyahu in terms of seriousness of purpose is real and credible, that it’s a deserving time for the Palestinians to move to direct negotiations, and that it’s in the Palestinians best interest to do so.
What do you foresee happening before or by September, which is a big month with the settlement moratorium ending, and the UN General Assembly meeting? How do you see things progressing until then or through then?
I see a great deal of behind-the-scenes discussion and negotiation between the Obama administration and the Palestinian leadership, as well as the leadership throughout the Arab world. And the necessity for the Obama administration to put its own credibility on the line, if need be, to convince President Abbas and the other Arab leaders that time is of the essence, and that urgency requires that direct negotiations begin before September, because several challenges undoubtedly will be faced during September and October, and there needs to be a credible showing of real progress in terms of these negotiations. The longer we wait, the more difficult it becomes.
Also, I think that it’s fair that the United States holds the Israelis and the Palestinians to an ambitious standard. Because there really is, in fact, one primary goal, which is to once and for all end the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis permanently. It will take extraordinary courage on the prime minister’s behalf, as well as President Abbas’ behalf, to do so.
The last time we talked to you, Vice President Biden had been to Israel, and the Israeli government had announced new construction in Ramat Shlomo, and just this week, the Jerusalem municipality announced new construction. What do you think is the implication of this announcement coming on the heels of the prime minister’s visit to Washington?
I don’t think we should read too much into it. The Israeli government, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his administration deserve credit for implementing a comprehensive and far-reaching settlement freeze. And, obviously, Prime Minister Netanyahu had challenges from within Israel, and from municipal officials. But, actions do speak louder than words, and the record of the Israeli government has been quite impressive. And Prime Minister Netanyhu will have another decision to make in this regard, possibly in September. While people can have legitimately ambitious goals for the prime minister in this regard, they also have to pay proper respect for the commitment and job that he’s already done. The challenges that he constantly faces from within Israeli society underscore both the need for constant cooperation between the United States and Israel on security matters and a whole host of other issues, but also, underscore the importance of being sensitive to the political realties that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have. President Abbas has the need to be attractive to his constituency, as well—his constituency within the Palestinian territories, as well as the constituency that he has in terms of the Arab League.
As a former Congressman, what kind of impact do you think that the upcoming midterm elections have on the administration’s efforts and conversely, do you think that the Israeli-Palestinian talks might influence elections here?
I think the degree of impact or influence that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and/or the negotiations will have on the American midterm election is, thankfully, on the margins. These are essential issues to Israeli and Palestinian security interests; also, they dramatically affect the national security interests of the United States of America. Having said that, though, I think both Republicans and Democrats would agree that the midterm elections in America will be determined, by and large, based on economic conditions in America, on people’s reading of the health care bill that passed, of the financial reform bill that passed, on whether or not the oil spill in the Gulf is resolved in a way that people are ultimately comfortable with. These are the issues that will determine the midterm elections as well as budget issues and how to resolve the budget deficit. I don’t think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to be front and center, in that regard.
You also headed the Turkey Caucus while you were in Congress. What is your sense of where the Israeli-Turkish relationship is heading and what that means for the United States?
It’s in a really rough spot. It’s an issue, and it’s a relationship, that is critical to both Israel and Turkey. It’s also critical to the United States. The Turkish-Israeli relationship has bolstered stability in the Middle East during the rockiest of times. The military-to-military relationship between Israel and Turkey, as well as their economic relationship, as well as the relationship between the peoples of both nations, has been a bedrock of moderation for years.
I would respectfully suggest that both sides act in a sober and cautious fashion, and do everything that they can to repair the relationship, and make certain that there aren’t things said or done that further compromise the relationship. And I would hope that all parties concerned would respect the fact that the Israeli government has initiated a credible investigation of the flotilla incident, with respected jurists involved, and we should wait for that finding. And also, it would be helpful for the Turkish government, in an objective fashion, to weigh its role in the unfortunate events that have occurred. Having said that, the loss of life is tragic in terms of the flotilla, and the Israeli military investigation and certainly the press articles have acknowledged that mistakes were made on the Israeli side. But, Israel had every right of self-defense, and the Israelis have every right to prevent the importation of weapons and items that present a security challenge to Israel into Gaza. But the bottom line is, Israel and Turkey are important allies of each other, and they are obviously both very important allies of the United States. Turkey is a NATO ally, and as we remove our troops from Iraq later this year and throughout next year, the Turks can play an essential role in making certain that Iraq remains stable. Turkey can play a unique role in creating a more prosperous Iraq in the future. So, we have to be careful to make certain that our two allies, Israel and Turkey, repair their relationship as quickly as possible.